Southwest fishermen urged to spare early kings

Craig MedredAlaska Dispatch News

Fishing season in Western Alaska is getting underway, with fisheries managers pleading with subsistence fishermen to spare chinook salmon.

Biologists have in turn been joined by the Kuskokwim Salmon Management Working Group and Napaimute, a Native corporation, in asking everyone to avoid the temptation to try to use the May opening of a gillnet fishery for sheefish to target early-arriving chinook, or king, salmon.

"Targeting king salmon before they have a chance to come in good numbers could have a devastating effect on the total run," The Tundra Drums, a Bethel-based newspaper, reported Thursday.

Bethel is the regional hub for the Yukon-Kuskokwim delta, and it erupted in a battle between subsistence fishermen and king salmon managers in 2012. The fishermen fished in defiance of closures, claiming they had a religious right to fish. Dozens were ticketed and their nets seized.

Lower spawning goals

At trial last May, a Bethel Superior Court judge ruled that whatever religious right to fish might exist is trumped by the right of the salmon to survive. An appeal of that ruling is continuing to work its way through the court system, but since the judgment managers and fishermen have been trying to work together.

Subsistence fishermen went along with restrictions on the king fishery last year after spawning goals were lowered to allow a chance for more fishing. The new, lower spawning goals might not be enough this year, however.

Fisheries managers have been warning all winter that there may be no king season at all this year.

"King salmon on the Kuskokwim are in trouble," Brian McCaffery, the acting manager for the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge, wrote in a commentary for the Drums. "Since last fall, there has been a growing local recognition that the problem is serious and that serious actions need to be taken. As has been pointed out repeatedly in our local papers, the run last year was the smallest on record; escapement was also the lowest on record, more than 15,000 fewer than the lower range of the escapement goal. Very few individual tributaries met their escapement goals, and all of the Kuskokwim drainage weir projects reported the lowest passage on record.

"The king salmon run in 2014 is forecast to be just as bad. Thus, we expect there to be very little, if any, harvestable surplus."

Maybe some king harvest later

Napaimute, a village upriver from Bethel on the Kusko, has been leading the push for conservation.

"The purpose of allowing unrestricted fishing for a very short period prior to when the king salmon showed up in good numbers was to allow fishermen to fish for specifically sheefish and species other than king salmon," the Native Village of Napiamute noted on its website in early May. "However, if large numbers of fishers go out and target kings, they could, depending on how many they catch, affect the rest of the season for everyone. If the run is weak, as is expected, and a large quantity of king salmon are harvested in the next 10 days, there likely won't be any opportunity in late June or July ... for anyone!"

Fisheries managers already plan to restrict net size by May 20 to protect kings and to turn the mid-June fishery from a gillnet fishery into a dipnet fishery with a ban on the harvest of kings. Dipnetters who catch king, chum and sockeye salmon can release the kings uninjured. It is difficult to release those fish unharmed from a gillnet.

Salmon managers will, they have added, open a king gillnet fishery for chums and sockeye later in June if king salmon numbers indicate that can be done safely. And, McCaffery wrote, "If early season run indicators are strong and/or if compliance with restrictions has been favorable, a limited harvest of king salmon (not to exceed 1,000 fish drainage-wide) may be allowed for cultural and social purposes. This harvest would be allocated via permits to the 32 communities qualifying for king salmon harvest this season."

How this all plays out remains to be seen. A thousand kings come nowhere near meeting the needs of villages that say they need upwards of 50,000 to survive.

Some in the region still argue for fishing in defiance of king closures to protest what they believe to be problems caused by the incidental catches of king salmon in major Alaska offshore fisheries for bottomfish, though there is no evidence directly linking those fisheries to ongoing king salmon declines in both the Kuskokwim and Yukon rivers.

Kings appear to be struggling in most Alaska waters north of the Southeast Alaska Panhandle because of climate-related issues.

Reach Craig Medred at